Dec. 4 2018 12:00 AM

The city is building an advanced purification plant to meet future needs.

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Residents of El Paso, Texas may soon be getting part of their drinking water from city sewers, according a story reported in Environmental Leader. If they do, they’ll be the first large city in the U.S. to utilize treated sewage water for drinking purposes.

That water will come from the Advanced Water Purification Facility, now being built, for the express purpose of treating sewage water and turning it directly into potable water. Treated wastewater is already used in the city for irrigation and industrial purposes

As much as half of El Paso’s water comes from the Rio Grande. But, as the region becomes increasingly drought-prone, city officials realize they need to seek new sources.

Texas suffered through an extremely severe drought a few years ago, with more expected in the future. In addition, the amount of snowmelt feeding the Rio Grande river has dropped 25 percent. since 1958 and is now “critically low,” as J. Phillip King, an adviser to the Elephant Butte Irrigation District told CNN. The use of treated wastewater will add a significant source of water to the city’s supplies.

The condition of the Elephant Butte Reservoir illustrates the increasingly dire situation. It currently shifts between 3 to 4 percent of its full capacity. And King said the Colorado River will be in the same depleted state a few years from now.

El Paso Water describes how the process works: “Water passes through several phases of membrane filtration and disinfection using advanced water purification. This multiple-stage treatment process transforms the treated wastewater into a safe, reliable drinking water supply. Unlike other potable reuse facilities in the United States, which return drinking water to a treatment plant or blend it with other raw water sources, the Advanced Water Purification Facility will use a direct-to-distribution approach, with the purified water flowing directly into the drinking water distribution system.”

A pilot test successfully demonstrated that highly purified water can be consistently produced with this process. Thousands of water samples, analyzed at state-certified laboratories, showed that the purified water meets and exceeds primary and secondary standards, according to El Paso Water.

Should El Paso become the first major city to use treated wastewater as drinking water, it won’t be alone. A recent report from Bluefield Research says that while most of the 735 reuse projects it tracked across the U.S. are using reclaimed water strictly for irrigation purposes, projects with potable applications are gaining traction, particularly in the perennially thirsty states of California, Florida, Texas and Arizona.

Smaller Texas cities such as Big Spring and Wichita Falls have implemented direct potable reuse projects. Cloud Croft, New Mexico, recently permitted a direct potable reuse project in response to limited water sources for the seasonal tourist population, but it is not in operation, according to the EPA.